CAT AND MOUSE ON CHO OYU'S WEST RIDGE
WE ARRIVED IN Kathmandu on the first of March. It did not take us long to provision the expedition and secure the necessary permits. On March fifth the three of us, our staff, and four 'family' trekking members, set off on a hired bus for Jiri, the beginning of our walk to the mountain. We agreed from the outset that the approach on foot would increase our enjoyment and decrease the risk of altitude problems, especially during as rapid an ascent as we were hoping for. In addition, I find that I am psychologically and physically better prepared for a mountain after a 160 to 200 km walk to its base.
Deepak, our strong and kind liaison officer, joined us on schedule in Lukla. We spent two nights in Namche adjusting to the altitude and re-packing our loads for yaks during the five remaining days to base camp. From Namche our approach took us to Thami village and then up the valley towards the southwest side of Cho Oyu. We enjoyed a very comfortable pace during the 14 days of walking. Our group was especially cohesive and relaxed largely due to its family-like quality.
In spite of our slow pace to the mountain, Alan came down with a cough the day before arriving at base camp. He and his wife, Sue Harrington, remained behind to recuperate while the rest of us established base camp at a site known as Kangshung on 19 March 1989 at 5290 m. The following day Alan and Sue descended towards Thami for a few days rest as his condition had not improved during the night. Our family members also began their descent from base camp on the 20th.
Our expedition did not begin with the notion that only two of us would climb alone on the west ridge of Cho Oyu. However, because we could well imagine the variables involved, we planned an expedition of three members. The thought of having to cancel the attempt due to one member's variance from the plan was a situation we wanted to avoid.
As it turned out our thinking was right. Alan did not completely recover from his respiratory ailment. Although he descended 1000 m and waited ten days for a full recuperation, his re-ascent to base camp brought back the problem. It was a terribly frustrating situation for him.
Martin and I proceeded with our own acclimatization during these same ten days. By the time Alan and Sue returned on 31 March, it became difficult to figure out how we could eventually merge the two levels of acclimatization for a summit attempt in our allotted time.
We used the clear periods between storms to recconoitre possible routes on Cho Oyu's south and southwest sides. Eventually we placed a tent at 5800 m, about a four hour walk from the foot of the west ridge originally climbed by the Polish in 1986. This ridge struck us as being both technically interesting and yet feasible for the quick ascent that we envisioned. Unfortunately for us, a heavy storm in the final days of March deposited a half metre of snow on the glacier even at base camp. After the skies cleared we could not move for two additional days. Our doubts about snow conditions on the mountain were accompanied by a preoccupation with the high winds that we could see blasting the ridges around us above 7300 m. To our benefit, however, we believed these high winds might sweep the mountain clean of fresh snow by the time we reached those heights eight or ten days later. Martin and I both felt torn when we set off from base camp on 1 April for what we hoped would be the last time before reaching the summit.
I take up the story with excerpts from my journal on 3 April:
3 April: 5800 m
Alan has not made it up here to advanced base camp. After the five days delay from bad weather, Martin and I felt we had to take advantage of this dear spell. We have decided to begin but to climb at a slow pace which will allow us to acclimatize on our actual ascent of the mountain. We feel really good here now at 5800 m but this is a far cry from the 8201 m we hope to reach in five days. Ang Dorje will help us tomorrow with our packs as far as he can. He'll then wait in base camp until our descent. Thanks to him we won't begin the climb already exhausted. The winds are blowing hard up high but they won't affect us for a few days. By then we hope they'll die down some. If they don't we simply won't be able to make it.
1 have my doubts about whether I'll be able to climb with a 25 kg pack, especially at these altitudes. Although we're going as light as we dare, we must still carry a rope, some hardware, a bivi tent, 2 sleeping bags, a stove, fuel and food. We're unwilling to leave the bags and tent behind with five days planned on the' mountain.
4 April : 6150 m
We're set to begin tomorrow morning on the ridge. Meanwhile tonight we'll try and consume all the food we can and then leave some of the rest behind. Our packs are way too heavy. The walk across the glacier to the foot of the ridge today was as problem free as we could've hoped for. Up this high on the glacier crevasses have not opened and our only problem was skidding around on the glare ice without crampons on. I'm already feeling very cut off up here. We're a long hard day from base. Finally, though, it seems as though we're about to begin a great adventure. I'm both excited and nervous. Once we start I'll feel much better.
6 April : 7000 m
These last two days have involved some great climbing. Never has it been too difficult but never has it allowed us to lose our concentration. We came up many metres of exposed, knife edge ridge mixed in with short 45-55 degree slopes of snow and ice. The 200 m high rock pyramid was a mystery until we got up close to it. At first I was sure we would have to find a way around it. But as we came nearer we could see that it was not as steep as we had thought. We realized then that the Polish had climbed it directly and that the climbing was moderate. Nevertheless, it was a spectacular 200 m with a ramp system leading around the steep upper wall. In the last hour of light we emerged from the rock onto a spectacular knife edged ridge which led to the broad shoulder at 7000 m. Though the shoulder provides us with a very comfortable tent site, we feel really exposed here. If the winds come back up overnight, we'll have no place to escape them. With a little luck we'll get two more clear days and be able to descend the northwest ridge after reaching the top. Luckily for us, the enormous slope above us has been swept clean of any fresh snow that fell during the last severe storm. I'm not certain this slope would ve been passable otherwise. It's at a perfect angle for avalanches.
7 April : 7450 m
The winds kept us pinned in our sleeping bags until midday. With our backs up against the side of the tent, we had to wait out the morning praying things would improve. Eventually they did. We crossed the broad slope in about 4 hours and set the tent here at about 7450 m after an hour's more climbing. If the winds pick up again tonight we're going to have a very hard day going to the top.
We managed to tag the summit on 8 April in very windy conditions. I never thought we'd make it with me snow blowing the way it was. By 9.30 a.m. I was just not able to keep my toes warm. It was still so early in the season and, together with the wind, I just couldn't stay warm. Martin had a hard time keeping any food down the last night and, of course, breakfast for him was out of the question. It was cat and mouse all day with the winds. By mid morning I was very cold. I decided I simply had to be sensible and turn back. I could not justify injuring my toes again. At the last moment, Martin found a sheltered slope on the lee side of the ridge at about 7800 m and encouraged me to try and warm up there. This I managed to do after a 45 minutes rest on the slope. But from then on it was a gruelling fight with the wind to gain every metre. We came back out onto the ridge and made a half hour's progress. Then we were forced back onto the lee side in search of shelter in the rocks. We looked for a route up the southwest face, but found nothing that looked good. Again we confronted the 100 kph winds coming from the northwest. A second time we made only a little progress. We could see a 100 m plume of snow shooting straight up into the sky where the northwest face began to level off onto the immense summit icefield. It was very impressive. We were driven back off to the southwest side where we found a shallow 0.5 rn deep niche to hide in. We waited there another 3/4'hour. I dosed off for minutes at a time, waiting and wondering what our chances were. Did we still have time for the top even if the winds eased off ? With determination and last hope, we swung back left to the northwest flank and braced ourselves with our ski poles. Then, step by step, we gained new ground. The sky was free of clouds but over Tibet the wind - whipped dust was thick and brown, hanging in the atmosphere as if a smoggy city lay just beyond. This was no crystal clear day at altitude.
Once off the last rock steps, Martin began veering towards the snowy mound to our left. It appeared to be the closest thing to a summit that we could see. At about the same time I realized that the top must be far to the southeast side of this immense plateau. I asked myself, 'does it matter now ? '. We were on the summit icefield and, given the winds, the rest seemed absurd. But we pressed on over the nearly level plateau, gaining only a few metres for every 100 that we crossed. Though the winds were still high, the midday sun seemed to bring some decrease in their intensity. My toes would survive, though they would complain. It was then just a question of will power to go on as there was no indication that an unmistakable highest point existed. It was only clear that we were still gaining a little altitude. The slope drifted down behind us and the effort kept us breathing hard.
For about 3/4 of an hour we crossed the summit icefield. Suddenly we were rewarded with a view to the east of Everest, Lhotse. Nuptse, nnd the entire Khumbu valley. The scenery was breathtaking. It began to dawn on me then that I had come full circle; back to the way 1 had loved to climb in the beginning. 1 was finally here on this high peak in a simple, satisfying twosome. I looked out across to Everest and remembered the day we had stood on that summit. It had been a tremendous team effort and I had been lucky enough to represent them on the summit day. But here, Martin and 1 were alone. The winds swept across. There was no one else behind us. We represented only our own dreams and aspirations.
Only 2-300 horizontal metres more remained until the plateau began to drop off to the south. There were jumbles of large ice blocks, apparently wedged up from the glacial pressure beneath them. As we reached this gentle mound we stopped and hugged each other roughly. The beautiful Gokyo valley stretched out to the south of us. 1 shouted over the wind that it had been one of the most doubt ridden summits I had made. Martin agreed. We unsheathed our cameras and shot a few photos as Martin held tightly to a Basque flag and I to an American. Then we began descending the 700 m back to our bivi tent. 1 had wanted to be going in that direction most of the day. Craving thicker air, 1 didn't stop until 1 reached the shelter of our bivi tent. That night we congratulated each other again. It was our second high summit together. These were bonds that would last a lifetime.
The following day we descended the northwest ridge. Save for one tricky section through the icefall, we made very rapid progress. 1 could not wait to be looking up at these mountains from the depths of a deep, safe valley. By mid afternoon we reached the base of the ridge and the safety of the lower altitudes. The skies warned of a change in the weather. Martin managed to eat now and his strength returned quickly. 1 lost my concentration and could eat nothing. My strength ebbed away. I took a long, long time getting back to base camp the next day.
When we spoke to Ang Dorje, he described how he and his partner had tried to come up from base camp to look for us on the day, it turned out, we had made the summit. 'The winds were too strong,' he said. 'We were beaten back on the glacier'. I had no trouble understanding what he meant.
An ascent of Cho Oyu (8201m) by the west ridge on 8 April 1989 by the American team.
Climbing the west ridge of Cho Oyu. Article 4 (Carlos Buhler)